LIVE REVIEW: Erland Cooper, The Barbican, London: bringing the soul of Orkney to the heart of the capital

Erland Cooper accompanied by players from the London Contemporary Orchestra performance at the Barbican, photographed by Mark Allan. Picture courtesy The Barbican

TO THE Barbican, that beautiful, brutalist residential and cultural hub in London EC2: for a gig. A gig! Livestream or not, it’s a red letter day in 2020.

Ah … gigs. Aren’t they wonderful, beauteous things. Okay, it’s a livestream event, but look at it out there; am I in a position to choose? Are you? It’s been exactly 227 days since my last gig. Yes, I did count. I can’t remember a period of my adult life so starved of live music. (Full disclosure: My last gig was A Winged Victory For The Sullen at Bristol’s Trinity Centre on February 26th; when the ‘rona was still something on the news, somewhere else … just. Such innocent times).

And what could be more of a treat, more blissful, as a way of slaking that thirst than the first in a series of events from the autumn Live from the Barbican series: an evening with Orcadian musician Erland Cooper, who intends to journey us to those islands in a finely honed live reification of this beautiful triptych of albums about his home, Solan Goose, Sule Skerry and Hether Blether.

It was the first of a dozen events in a season which will also feature Nubya Garcia, Richard Dawson, The Divine Comedy and Emmy the Great, among others.

In fact, Erland reveals during his set that this series of concerts was possible at least, in part, due to a donation from an anonymous benefactor; to them, to the Barbican, and to Erland and the host of talent he assembled to realise these records in the live arena, we should be so grateful.

Erland at the piano, photographed by Mark Allan, Picture courtesy The Barbican

Coverage opens with Erland, shot from behind, running across one of the low, modernist lakes that grace the area around the Barbican, and into the hall; this will make more sense later. A brief introduction from Mary Anne Hobbs on a beautifully lit stage and Erland, with his quartet from the London Contemporary Orchestra and violinist Anna Pheobe, swirls us through the brief, rousing introduction of “Flattie (Pt 1)” and into the musical evocation of sea fog, “Haar”.

Much of the music Erland presents seems to follow a simple formula on paper, need you to reduce it to such: delicate piano, strings, a soaring voice, environment recordings. But oh the nuance, the emotional resonance. The attention to the transmitted effect. In “Haar”, to me, you can hear the sea, see the cloud front advancing and unfolding over calm stretches of water; you can hear a pin drop, as Erland picks out little glimmers of melody at his upright piano.

Erland reveals his intention to take us to Orkney, “very slowly, very gently,” as the percussive, croaking chatter of seabirds over waves adds a clever, natural-world tronica glitch percussion to the grandeur of “Solan Goose”. When his quartet’s soprano, Lottie Greenhow, takes flight, it hits you right in the chest; as Erland said in interview nearly two years back, and in simpler times, “If it moves me to tears, I’ve achieved what I wanted.” And in “Solan Goose” you hear exactly what he aims to evoke.

Erland Cooper conducts while poet Will Burns declaims at the Barbican; photographed by Mark Allan. Picture courtesy The Barbican

After a more neo-classical opening period, the music gradually picks up elements of electronica. During “Cattie Face” Erland steps away from his piano and, Jarvisesque in an immaculately cut suit, part-crouches in front of the quartet, peering; rises, begins conducting, urging the performers to ever more appreciation of the nuance he’s conceived. It’s a touching moment. He dedicates the warm autumnal study “Sillocks”, a chest-tightening sketch for soprano and piano “ … to all my pals in the arts; let’s just keep cracking on, eh?”.

“Bonxie” sees Erland at the synth, later returning to pick out high grace notes while Jake Downs handles the swell and fall of the main melody, both in concert at the one piano. The portentous and cloudier “Linga Holm” – at which point Erland reveals we are halfway to Orkney – tees us up for “Maalie”, for which poet Will Burns, original lyricist for the track, takes the stage. Full disclosure, part the second: I adore Will Burns. If you haven’t heard (indeed bought) Chalk Hill Blue, his collaboration with Hannah Peel, you’re really missing out. His style is unshowy, unpretentious – which brings out the power of his declaimed, demotic texts.

“Maalie” is barely there, the subtlest tease of piano and violin melody; economy just foregrounds the contemplative evocation. “I could not shake the feeling we were somewhere at odds with memory,” Will says. “Everywhere the rain too fine to see … all blended to a single wisdom of water.” You notice, in turn, how some members of the quartet are caressing their instruments with seabird feathers in place of their bows. A projected murmuration of starlings swirls above. Will’s carefully chosen words of such resonance given, he tucks that wise notebook back in his pocket and exits.

Erland angular at the synthesiser, while Jake Downs “handles the swell and fall of the main melody”, photographed by Mark Allan. Picture courtesy The Barbican

For all the marvellous tech involved tonight, it raises a grin to see Erland perch a WHSmith & Sons top-handled portable cassette player on his piano to provide the curlew-song for the gossamer folk yearn of “Shalder”; we’re pushing language and its capabilities to capture how this collocation of sound can be so affecting. It’s gentle, clever, stirring, spacious, fleeting, pensive. You need to hear it. The curlew, a bird of estuary feeding and moorland nesting, has an eerie but beautiful siren song that instantly transports you if you know it. It embeds as a song memory. Erland notes the cry of the curlew as his “favourite voice of all time.”

“Spoot Ebb” has all the bass profundo implosion of waves slapping through treacherous, narrow channels between islands, Erland’s piano motif insistent, propulsive. It’s augmented after the introductory bars by the quartet, some of whom join in that staccato phrasing, others of whom glide and wheel above. Kathryn Joseph caresses “Flattie (Pt 2)” with an otherworldly whisper over transporting resonance: it’s so delicate, so affecting. She’s like a ghost in the wind, keening a quiet song to you.

As we reach the end of the set, we have the most electronic, and the most pop, tune so far, in “The First Of The Tide”. Erland himself sings, whisper-quiet, over a tune that’s redolent of early Efterklang; which, given their Danish origins, may present a deeper connection to Orkney than the immediately musical. It’s a lovely nugget of post-classical-folktronica-ambient-psychogeographic-folk-pop; though clearly we need a much catchier and classier name for it than that.

Like many of the other tunes herein this evening, some of the beauty lies in the brevity, they come, make a deep impression, are gone all too soon. Erland’s music resists the urge to spin around the block for one more crescendo; they are songs that are fragile glimpses with such depth.

Photograph by Mark Allan. Picture courtesy The Barbican

He plays us out in the melancholy beauty of “Skreevar”, named for the wonderfully echoic Norse word for a strong wind; an essay in what you can achieve with strings, piano, and the reel-to-reel tape machine that’s been perched on Erland’s trusty upright all through the set. In the projections, we again see Erland running, from behind; through harbourside Orcadian streets, onto a pier head, he propels himself off and out and into … . It’s a cathartic marriage of sonics and imagery, the music low and complex. 

Does he get a deserved standing ovation from the limited crowd in actual attendance? Of course he does. And from me as well, 300 miles away in my terraced cottage I suspend disbelief and I’m also in the hall, moved, upstanding, quietly cheering.

Is there an encore? Yes, there is. “Where I Am Is Here”, the blissful closer from this year’s Hether Blether, begins to play from a tape; Erland takes the stage once more, stands on his piano stool in direct communion with his song; takes the mic, and is joined again by Jake Downs at the piano to move the recording into duo performance. It’s really a very graceful and moving end to a brilliant, empathetic, descriptive night of music.

Forget the Chancellor and his viabilities. So many of us live for this, the music, the evocation; the respite, the escape; the wonder, the inspiration to learn more, and see more, and hear more, and be more. We need music, and we need Erland.

For more information on upcoming events and tickets for the Live At The Barbican autumn series, click here; follow Erland Cooper at his website.

Erland communes with his reel-to-reel during the encore. Photograph by Mark Allan. Picture courtesy The Barbican
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